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The Last Chance for Cyprus, Really
The Last Chance for Cyprus, Really
Divided Cyprus: Coming to Terms on an Imperfect Reality
Divided Cyprus: Coming to Terms on an Imperfect Reality
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

The Last Chance for Cyprus, Really

Originally published in The Daily Star

When he witnessed the deadly conflict unfolding between Greek and Turkish Cypriots in 1955, novelist Lawrence Durrell noted how unreal the bloodshed seemed against the background of the island's idyllic beauty. Between bouts of violence, he said, the land was "covered by the deceptive mask of a perfect spring, smothered in wild flowers and rejoicing in those long hours of perfect calm which persuaded all but the satraps that the nightmare had faded."

The killings and more than half a century have passed, but the self-deception long remained. Now the Greek Cypriot electorate - which on Sunday ousted incumbent President Tassos Papadopoulos in favor of candidates more realistic about how to find a settlement between the two sides of the divided island - has woken up to the way Cyprus's tranquility masked a recent unraveling of the predictable, if awkward, status quo. A February 24 run-off election will decide whether the new search for a solution will be under the pro-European leadership of former foreign minister Ioannis Kasoulides, who narrowly led the poll, or Dimitris Christofias, leader of the nominally Communist party AKEL.

For three decades after Turkey's invasion in 1974, stalemate ruled. Turkish troops occupied the northern third of the island, guarding the Turkish Cypriot community, about 20 percent of the total population. Ankara would not pull out unless the Turkish Cypriots got a federated state in a new bi-zonal Cyprus. The Greek Cypriots wouldn't offer their Turkish neighbors more than minority rights in the Greek Cypriots' own unitary state. The standoff held back the Cypriots economically and hobbled Turkey's integration with the West. Yet the buffer zone is normally so quiet that United Nations peacekeepers there can afford to write nature studies about the flora and fauna that has multiplied in this overgrown no man's land.

Between 2002 and 2004, there was a heady moment of hope. The Turkish Cypriot side unilaterally opened border crossings, triggering a nostalgic rush of bi-communal visits. Turkey agreed to the UN-mediated Annan plan to withdraw its troops, backed by the United States, the European Union and, in a 2004 referendum, by 65 percent of the Turkish Cypriot voters. But this hope was extinguished when 76 percent of Greek Cypriots, urged on by Papadopoulos, voted no.

Even though Papadopoulos broke a promise to back the plan, the EU then allowed the Greek Cypriot government to join the EU as the island's sole representative. Since then, the status quo has been falling apart. Relations between Greek and Turkish Cypriots are deteriorating and putting the island on course for indefinite partition. Official contacts have all but ceased, and bi-communal meetings have dried up.

Turkey refuses, against its best interests, to honor its EU obligation to open its seaports and airports to Greek Cypriot traffic. A $380 million EU aid program to Turkish Cypriots is stumbling over Nicosia's refusal to acknowledge Turkish Cypriot institutions created after the 1974 invasion. Ill-will on both sides means intra-island trade is minimal. EU-sanctioned Turkish Cypriot exports through Greek Cypriot ports amounted to one shipment of aluminum scrap last year. In 2006, it totaled one shipment of Turkish Delight - or "Cyprus Delight" in EU parlance.

And while until now the conflict had few implications for the outside world, there is now a big new loser: the European Union. The EU effectively imported the Cyprus problem into its inner councils, clouding its foreign, security and trade policy. Nicosia is the principal holdout against a European consensus to support an independent Kosovo, fearing that it would be a precedent for Turkish Cypriot secession. In 2006, Greek Cypriots wielded the swing vote on EU import tariffs on Chinese shoes. Nicosia backed the protectionists apparently because of their support in the Cyprus dispute. In 2005, Greek Cypriots held up EU talks with countries in the Caucasus for six months because of a single charter flight between Azerbaijan and the Turkish Cypriot airport in north Cyprus.

At every turn, Greek Cypriots have used their EU membership to punish Turkey, notably by trying to torpedo Ankara's accession talks. The Turks, in turn, have used their membership in NATO to retaliate by blocking Cypriot and EU cooperation with the group, even in Afghanistan. Turkey is also blocking Cypriot accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and even the European Center for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts.

But it is not just the EU that needs to reverse the dynamics of partition in Cyprus. Turkey has to strike a deal that will ultimately ensure the withdrawal of its troops if it is to resume its stalled enlargement talks with the EU. For the Turkish Cypriots in the north, a comprehensive settlement is the only realistic way to get their full rights as EU citizens and save themselves from dependence on Turkey. It's also their best bet to rid themselves of criminal elements taking advantage of the territory's unrecognized status to launder money and smuggle illegal immigrants into the EU.

For the Greek Cypriots, a settlement is the only way to win the withdrawal of Turkish troops from the island, recover at least some territory on the other side of the border for former refugees, and discourage the influx of Turkish immigrants into the north which threatens the island's demographic balance.

The Greek part of Cyprus south of Nicosia boasts shiny office buildings and showy restaurants, but all is not well. A tourism sector aimed at cheap holidays for Britons is sagging. Cyprus's membership in the EU and the euro zone means that making money off a free-wheeling offshore banking system is no longer an option. Lying 70 kilometers from the Turkish coast and 4,650 kilometers from Brussels, Greek Cypriots need normalization with Turkey if their service industries are to become an East Mediterranean hub.

All the countries in its neighborhood, even Greece, are pursuing policies of detente and cooperation with Turkey, the region's biggest and most dynamic economy. Syria, once the standard-bearer for Greek Cypriots against Turkey in the Arab and Islamic worlds, reopened a ferry route to the Turkish Cypriot port of Famagusta in October.

Cooperation instead of conflict with Turkey would provide large benefits. Greek Cypriot hoteliers could, like the Greek island of Rhodes, be filling empty rooms with newly well-off Turkish tourists. Turkey's ban on Greek Cypriot vessels has helped push the Greek Cypriot merchant fleet from fourth down to 11th in the world. Ending a sense of being a gated community in the wrong neighborhood will persuade more well-qualified young Cypriots to stay home rather than seek opportunities elsewhere.

Greek Cypriots should realize that Turkish Cypriots are growing stronger in the world and will not give up and join a unitary Greek Cypriot state. Similarly, Turks should understand that the only way to persuade Greek Cypriots to settle will be through normalization and persuasion, not threats, as when Ankara hinted at a military escalation during a 2007 oil-prospecting dispute. Once the Greek Cypriot presidential elections this month are out of the way, all sides should appeal to the UN to return to mediate a comprehensive settlement. This time, it may really be the last chance.

Report 229 / Europe & Central Asia

Divided Cyprus: Coming to Terms on an Imperfect Reality

To avoid another failed effort at federal reunification in the new round of Cyprus negotiations, all sides should break old taboos and discuss all possible options, including independence for Turkish Cypriots within the European Union.

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Executive Summary

Talks have begun – yet again – on a settlement for divided Cyprus. To avoid another failed effort at a federation, new ideas are needed. The basic blockage is that Greek and Turkish Cypriots have separate lives, languages and infrastructure and fear a unified new administration would be more threatening than the peaceful status quo. In debate and new backstage diplomacy, they and the international community should test a route to a different unity, including through giving Turkish Cypriots full independence and EU membership. Thinking outside the box may persuade the sides they prefer a federation, not least because the smaller Turkish Cypriot state would be so weak. But a realistic new approach could also be the best way to take advantage of Turkey’s new political will for a settlement, Greek Cypriots’ need for a dignified escape from economic trouble and Turkish Cypriots’ wish to be both in the EU and in charge of their own affairs.

Legitimising Turkish Cypriot self-determination has been taboo outside the Turkish Cypriot entity and its backers in Turkey. The Greek Cypriot majority that took exclusive control of the internationally-recognised Republic of Cyprus in 1964 remains utterly opposed in public to formal partition. Its position is backed by UN Security Council resolutions and Cyprus’s network of allies, notably the EU, especially because of Turkey’s 1974 invasion and the subsequent physical separation of the communities. Yet, in five rounds of mainly UN-facilitated negotiations over four decades, the sides have been unable to agree to reunify Cyprus according to the official parameters of a bizonal, bicommunal federation. Thousands of meetings in dozens of formats have resulted only in a glacial, incomplete normalisation of the de facto partition between the Greek Cypriot majority in the south and the Turkish Cypriots in the north.

Officials involved in the fresh round of talks since February 2014 say they are aiming for the lightest federation yet imagined. The chief Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot negotiators have visited Ankara and Athens, opening an important new line of communication. But ill omens abound. Talks on just the opening statement dragged on for five months. Public scepticism is high. Suggested confidence-building measures, rarely achieved through negotiation anyway, have fallen flat. Natural gas discoveries south of the island are still minor and have done more to distract the sides than to unify them. Turkey and Greece, the outside powers with the greatest ability to help reach a deal, support the talks in principle, but their leaders have done little of the public diplomacy outreach that might make them likelier to succeed.

The status quo has proved durable and peaceful and is constantly improving. Nobody has been killed on the Green Line dividing the island since 1996. The main day-to-day problem is not so much the division of the island, but the non-negotiated status of the de facto partition. In private, business leaders on both sides and diplomats on all sides appear increasingly interested in a new framework for discussion. Turkish Cypriots voted in 2010 for a leader who openly favours maximum independence for their community. Some Greek Cypriots are privately ready to consider this option, although anger at the injustices of the Turkish invasion and strong nationalist rhetoric still rule the public sphere.

This report argues that the parties should informally consider the option of mutually agreed independence for the Turkish Cypriots within the EU. The feasibility of such an option depends on EU membership procedures that in this case would depend on the voluntary agreement of the Greek Cypriots, whose state is already a member, so has veto rights over a new candidate. To win that voluntary agreement, Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots would have to offer much: to return long-occupied territory like the ghost beach resort near Famagusta; pull back all or almost all of Turkey’s occupation troops; give up the international guarantees that accompanied the island’s independence in 1960; offer guaranteed compensation within an overall deal on property that both sides still own in each other’s territory; drop demands for derogations from EU law that would block post-settlement Greek Cypriot property purchases in any future Turkish Cypriot state; and acknowledge full Greek Cypriot control of territorial waters south of the island that have proven natural gas deposits.

The existing Republic of Cyprus and a new Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus side by side in the EU might provide much of what Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots actually want. There would be no federal government with cumbersome ethnic quotas that might anyway be struck down by the European Court of Human Rights. The prickly issue of the two thirds of north Cypriot properties owned by Greek Cypriots would become clearer and easier to resolve. If independent, the Turkish Cypriot entity would probably be willing to place its own limits on new Turkish “settlers” from the mainland. Turkey and Turkish Cypriots would likely have a defence arrangement, as is possible within the EU. And with a Cyprus settlement, the path of Turkey’s own EU accession process would be open again.

Without a settlement, the frictions of the non-negotiated partition will simply continue. Turkey’s EU relationship will stay blocked and the EU and NATO will remain unable to cooperate formally, due to diplomatic duelling between the Republic of Cyprus and Turkey, respectively members in only one of those organisations. Turkish Cypriots will live on in unjustified isolation. And Greek Cypriots will suffer a deeper economic depression, longer deprivation of property rights, costly obstacles in the way of natural gas development, diminishing leverage over Turkey and, perhaps worst of all, indefinite uncertainty.

Nicosia/Istanbul/Brussels, 14 March 2014